The Handmaiden: Cruel Intentions, by David Bax
In any sadomasochistic sexual transaction, there is a dominant party and a subordinate one. The performative traits of each role may reflect the obvious power imbalance suggested by the monikers but, in truth, most folks who engage in such activities will tell you that the sub is the one who’s really in charge. Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden—a well-appointed period piece that the director nevertheless transmutes into his usual ruminations on violence both physical and psychic done in service of love, lust and obsession—embodies this standard S&M dynamic exquisitely. Park’s characters repeatedly pull the rug out from under us and one another, often at the exact moment they seem most vulnerable. It’s a neat trick but, in the hands of an artist working at the top of his formal and narrative talents, it may also be a masterpiece.
The Handmaiden (based on Sarah Waters’ Victorian England-set novel Fingersmith) is the tale of a young, lower class woman in 1930s, Japanese-occupied Korea named Sookee (Kim Tae-ri) who takes a job in the titular position to a wealthy Japanese woman named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). As we soon learn, though, Sookee is not who she claims to be. In truth, she is a grifter who has been assigned this post as part of a scheme by Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who intends to seduce Hideko (with Sookee’s help), wed her, take her money and then commit her to a mental institution for the rest of her life. Really, though, that’s only the beginning of this twisty, tricky story but it would be unfair to reveal more (not to mention that it would take the rest of the review to explain it all).
Let us just say that The Handmaiden is a crime story, a thriller, a work of horror and erotica and, ultimately, a romance. Park blends these genres masterfully and he does so first and foremost with the assistance of the score by Cho Young-wuk, which manages to be both as schizophrenic and as cohesive as the film itself.
Park and his screenwriting partner Chung Seo-kyung are adapting a novel set in a far different time and place then the movie is; The Handmaiden, in fact, is in many ways unlike any of Park’s previous work. Yet so much of his blood flows through it. The film is lurid and fetishistic even beyond the high watermarks in such categories Park has previously set for himself. Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon’s camera lustfully pores over Lady Hideko’s wardrobe—she has five drawers devoted exclusively to luxurious and meticulously folded gloves—in the same way it lingers on the indentations in the skin that remain after a corset has been removed. Park’s fixation on detail is particularly well suited to an exploration of the ways devastating cruelty can be doled out within the confines of etiquette and decorum.
That overlap between cruelty and beauty is Park’s playground. Overlap, in fact, isn’t even the right word. Symbiosis, perhaps, is more fitting. Beauty itself is cruel by nature, both to those who are defined by it and those who find it mockingly out of reach. The Handmaiden‘s characters, even the most villainous of them, are made sympathetic by such limitations. Park makes sure that our ability to identify with them makes the story’s many betrayals sting all the more. But he also makes it clear that the characters empathize as much with one another as we do with them. That, after all, is what makes their cruelty so potent.
Park uses every second of his film’s protracted running time to finally distill the proceedings down to his inextricable twin themes, love and savagery. The Handmaiden is an epic illustration that there is perhaps nothing more human than inhumanity.